tv Tavis Smiley WHUT July 12, 2010 8:30am-9:00am EDT
tavis: good evening. from los angeles, i am tavis smiley. tonight, our conversation with soul legend bettye lavette. her latest cd is called "interpretations." she recorded her first top-10 hit at the age of 16, but did not release her first album until 20 years later. after nearly 50 years in the business, she is finally receiving the critical acclaim she has learned. i'm glad to have joined us. soul legend bettye lavette is here right now. >> all i know is his name is james, and he needs extra help with his reading. >> i'm james. >> yes. >> to everyone making a difference, you help us all live better. >> nationwide insurance supports tavis smiley.
with every question and answer, nationwide insurance is happy to help tavis improve of financial literacy and remove obstacles to economic empowerment one conversation at a time. nationwide is on your side. >> and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. [captioning made possible by kcet public television] tavis: honored to have bettye lavette on the program. the soul music legend recorded her first top-10 single when she was just a teenager living in motown. her latest project is the critically acclaimed new cd called "interpretations -- the british rock songbook." from the project, here is part of the george harrison classic.
suddenly people have discovered it. i think i waited for so long to hear them. this is my 48th year in show business -- not in life, show business. so to suddenly have people saying these things, the things they are saying, it is overwhelming to me they would suddenly discover me and say those things. i always kind of thought eventually they would discover me, but not that they would say the things they are saying. tavis: what the make of the fact you have been doing this almost 50 years and you are just now becoming critically acclaimed, discovered? this cd is being played everywhere. everybody. there is not a magazine, nobody in the music business who was not talking about this cd, unless they are under a rock. why 48 years later? >> it was not because i quit and joined a church.
no man was beating me up. i was not living in a car, was not struck out on drugs, i did not show up late for the gig. tavis: you have no excuses. am i can blame y-- >> i can blame y'all. i always sounded more like wilson pickett and diana ross. that was a hindrance at one time. i have said, and i don't think anyone really looked at, but my voice is very harsh and real. i believe now that people have seen actual murders happened on television, the things we have seen on television, the things we have been exposed to, i think we are more raw and brittle and i do not have to be as curly and keep. i think the public is more ready to accept the voice.
tavis: i hear you on that, and i want to explore this more. what does it say, though, to your joke, maybe partly serious, to the point we only have ourselves to blame for not discovering your talent, as prodigious as it is, took us 48 years to find out? what does it say about us we did not discover it? if you had done some of those things, acted awful like so many other artists, throwing temper tantrums, all the things, not showing up for days, if you had done some of that, maybe we would have discovered you sooner? >> i don't know, that is a possibility. my manager, who put me on this track in 1969, jim lewis, he said, you are keep, -- you are cute, but you have to learn your craft. he said you may never be a
star, but you will be up to sing and make money as long as you live if you learn how to do it, and that means singing. i used to not sing certain songs because they were "white" and i was black and i thought it would not sound correct. he said, you are a singer, if you know the song, if you know the words, if you have somebody to play it, sing that joker. this has kept me, the whole 48 years i've been struggling, maybe the gig only paid $50 per night, but i worked the entire 48 years. i had to learn to tap dance. i had to do with the game called for, which made me a broader artist. had i had a huge record at 16, my goodness, i would have been forced to do the twist up the rest of my life. but because none of it worked, i was not pigeonholed. nobody was expecting me to do anything, so i could do
everything. and i did. tavis: how did you navigate those almost five decades without being bitter, or were you? >> my goodness, i am from detroit. all my friends are rich. people that i actually slept in the same bed with -- not because we were having sex, but because that was the bed, and who slept on my floor became millionaires. and left me there. my first record was released before all of those people that you know of. certainly, i had better days and i quit. i quit at least six times a year, but somebody would call. somebody would call. that is the addiction of show business. it is like, you are doing so bad, then somebody calls and says i have a great disk -- i have this great game that pays $100. you forget all of that and you do it. the thing with me, to my good,
they kept calling. maybe they were calling for little things and now they are bigger, but they never stopped calling. when people say, what made you not quit, people paying the mortgage? pang the car note, giving me cars, clothing -- paying the car note, giving a cars, clothing. they believed in me. tavis: but you have to really, really, really believe this is what you have been called to do it, this is your purpose in life. >> police will not work. i had to decide that -- belief will not work. i had to decide that. i had to decide how good i am or not. tavis: how did you come to that? >> i don't know, but at some point i came to the conclusion that i do this well. belief and love will not sustain
you, in marriage or anything else. you have to decide. i decided i was that good, not just a random decision. that would be belief. it was, why are all these people taking care of me, recording these little records that only sell three copies? spending all of their money to do it? when this happens, tavis -- five years ago, this first coming out of the crypt, as i call it, no record companies owe me anything. i owed every record company i have ever recorded for. every one. they spent the money on me, the record to not sell, so i left owing them money. they could write it off, but i did not owe them unless the record started to sell, which they are doing now. every record company that ever had anything on me has released it, but i paid the mall. believe it or not, i just got
my first royalty check three years ago. tavis: you're first record came out in 1962 and you just got your first royalty check? >> because i owed them for the money they spent on recording the record. then my manager was great, well, maybe this did not go so well, could you won her $2,000, and records not selling, nobody told me anything. i am probably the only artist who owed the record company, with a record company did not know. it did not know a dime. tavis: how have you protected taking care of the instrument all these years? you still sound great. >> gm made it a habit with me. he said this -- jim made it a habit with me. i used to work out in the morning and cry, nose running, working out. "nobody is ever going to call,
nobody is got to call, nobody is going to call." tavis: you had a rhythm going. ♪ nobody is going to call >> but i did it, and i talk hard and sing hard. i did not give up. i had to learn overtime that your voice will be lost if you stay up all night, smoke all night, drink all night, and then sing hard all the next night. you cannot do it, i did not care who you are, from the rolling stones to the who, cannot do it. i really had to adjust my life. he told me, act like you are a singer and not from the north end of detroit living with your friends. whether you are making $5, you have to do the same show for $5 that you do for $50,000, the
exact same show, because you want the exact same review. tavis: in this business, image, as they say, is everything. it may not be everything, but it is close. how much of this, and i am serious, how much of your success now has to do with the fact that when the moment arrived, you still looked so good? >> i just looked like this to vex my contemporaries. i just do that just for that tavis: i love the honesty. >> but keeping my voice, that is all i have. i don't know how to count. my first record came out at 15. how much did i learn in school that could afford me to be as successful in another business as i am in this business? or as i could be in this business? so this thing that he instilled in me about being able to do my show stock, and i have to stay
physically strong to be this size and sing as loud as i do. when i come off stage, i feel as though i have been a fight, like somebody has been kicking me in here. your stomach and back have to stay strong. as long as you keep those muscles strong, then you can holler loud and sustain notes and phrase notes. . tavis: your point about your voice, the song stylings of bettye lavette, when people were not falling in love with your sound, were you ever tempted over these 48 years to change your sound? did you try to do that? >> i just want to sound like a girl so bad. i really did. jim said, this is the way you sound. he would play songs for me, one song recorded by 20 people, see
how different they sounded. invariably, i said i wanted to sound like one of those 20, never liked me. i wanted to sound like one of the people he played the song by. i was listening to another musician the other night on the television, or an actor, and he said, one day it just came to me what i was supposed to do. that was the way it came to me, after about 20 years. i am supposed to sing this just the way i am talking to you now, because that is the honesty of me. my honesty is however a comes out of my mouth, and that is the honesty of it. they said that may not be beautiful to you, but it will be real. as long as it is real and what came from your heart, there you go. i accepted that after a long while. that helped.
tavis: you have referenced jim more times than i can count. i have counted about eight. i say that because it seems to me that when you were trying to traverse a journey where nobody else gets it, it helps if you have one person, at least one person. >> i thought for some many years he did not get it because i thought he wanted me to sound like sarah vonn or frank sinatra. i knew he was not pleased with how i sounded. i had records on the charts and i was wondering. he just hates me and is chosen me to pick on. he took me into billy ext. nine -- texting's dressing room, has not had a record and 20 years, and he introduced me as a young lady who wants to be a singer. he kept me in that mode. it was like i was never quite big enough, and here is police
sitting here wishing he had my record contracts. -- and here is the elite sitting here wishing he had my record contracts. i was an aspiring to be as good as him. he kept me constantly trying to aspire to be as good as, and i admired him so much, as good as the people he thought were good. he said when you can make that -- i was talking to one of our newer managers on site the other day, and i said, i really like him because he reminds me a lot of james brown, and he is a raopper, but i cannot really respect him unless he sustains his career more than these eight years they have all lasted. frank sinatra's his career lasted 60 years. mine has lasted more than 48. while it was not successful, i was able to susin. i think this is what you have to
do. no matter how big you are now, make it last 50 years. pay all of your bills doing this. and nothing but this. then i will be like, let me have your autograph. tavis: you mentioned you're on frank sinatra. you actually took some time to study frank sinatra. am i was forced. tavis: i will let you tell the story. >> i was a teenager. to me, frank sinatra was boring and i did not get what jim was saying. he said, relax, let the song come to you. it is very boring to me. but when i got it, all of that came back to me. as much as i like ray charles, i was still light, i can never sing like him. he said, but you like him and you are very much like him. i said i am not like ray
charles. but when i got it, i got it. he would be so pleased. he really would. tavis: to the project itself, it is called "interpretations -- the british rock songbook." tell me how this concept came to be, because you have worked this thing. tell me about the concept. >> i did the kennedy center, so my husband said, why don't you do a whole album like that? i had never heard "love, rain, or me." was not a big who fan. as i explained to my audience when i do the songs, i say, the songs were the songs of your youth, but they were the nemesis of my youth, because there was no pop airplay for black artists. these people usurped the
airwaves, said they were not part of my life. what i had to do, with the help of my fabulous co-producer and arranger, brunn mathis -- i have not work with an arranger in 30 years, but i got him to sit and suspend his thoughts. here was a white guy who grew up with the songs, get him to suspend his thoughts. since i had no thought about them, they were just songs. i could sit at the piano and sing them the way they looked on the paper, which you know they were before they became legendary. they were just words on a piece of paper. if elvis presley at some them, there would be different. if tiny tim's on them, there would be different. -- if tiny tim sung them, they would be different. i call these the adult renditions of the songs. these songs are written by 20- year-old kids, and now a 65-
year-old woman is singing them. they do not have the same meaning and don't come to me at the same time. but at the same time, the producers of the kennedy center honors, they approached me at the same time my record company and my husband were trying to get this together, and everybody agreed it would be a great idea. i told my husband, you listen to all of these songs, i am not going to listen to all of these young white guys sitting for hours. he got me about 500 songs and i chose 12. tavis: i hear the point you made earlier about the songs represent a nemesis for you and a great deal of axed for certain artists of a certain generation. -- a great deal of angst. since at one point they were just words on paper, had any of the songs come to grow on you? >> yeah, now that they need
other things to me. like "nights in white satin," i cannot find one person who knew what the song meant or wrote it. i say this is a song written by justin hayward. everybody is like, what? i chose another it nemesis of my youth. that is who i am singing to. all of those lyrics directly apply to all the beauty i missed it, what these old guys, and whatever it is you want to beat you will be in the end. the whole thing. and "wish you were here." they were singing about their drummer or guitarists, who kind of flipped out, and i was singing about marvin gaye and other people i knew who did not have the time to do what ever
and became millionaires. they were just like "just lost souls swimming in a fishbowl, year after year, and now i am looking over this same old ground and i wish they were here to see me do this." they thought the best of me and never got big enough. that is another thing people don't know. if you are not as big as the beatles or rolling stones, if you open for an act, you have to be big enough to bring in money or the big act is just carrying you. the rolling stones and beatles could do that with stevie wonder and tina turner. the temptations and the miracles at the time could have afforded to do it, but you take along a person and give them a salary, and i never got big enough for them to help me. tavis: yet you were big enough for tina turner to cover one of your songs. >> and steve wynn would, one of his songs.
i am of course very flattered i was big enough as an artist, but none of them called and said here. i was willing to go and open for free. tavis: but she is not doing that now. bettye lavette is back. and she can call the shots these days. is it sweet, sweeter that it happened the way it happened, or not? >> in some ways, it is more satisfying than sweet. i am like anybody else's grandmother. i have no desire to put on at 6- inch heels and thrash around. t not only goes on the road every three, four, five years. i'm like any other old woman. this is not what i prefer to be doing it in my spare time, but this is the first time i have ever had the opportunity to make any money and i have to show up.
i'm glad i am healthy and strong and able to do it, but there are things. i have to give up most of my time to rest so i can be strong enough to do this. it is a lot of things. it is certainly something i wish had happened when i was younger, but i have no desire to be younger. i have no desire to be younger. i have done all that. tavis: now bettye lavette is doing philosophy, and i love it. she does the heck out of this cd. it is not often on this show i go over board is saying how much i think you're absolutely all to add something to your collection, but if you don't get this cd, there is something wrong with you. it is called bettye lavette, "interpretations -- the british rock songbook." please add this to your collection. i thought you were coming on 10 minutes, but i have heard you talk the whole show. whoever else was on, my
apologies. >> you have no idea how excited i am to talk to you. tavis: you are too cute. you better stop that. it is your husband here? >> i left him home deliberately. tavis: this is on television. i love you, betty. that is our show for tonight. until next time, keep the faith. it easy can take ♪ >> for more information on today's show, visit tavis smiley at pbs.org tavis: hi, i'm tavis smiley. join me next time for our conversation with actress kelli williams on the return of her new fox series, "lied to me." that is next time. we will see you then.
>> all i know is his name is james, and he needs extra help with his reading. >> i'm james. >> yes. >> to everyone making a difference, you help us all live better. >> nationwide insurance supports tavis smiley. with every question and answer, nationwide insurance is proud to join tavis in working to improve financial literacy and remove obstacles to economic empowerment one conversation at a time. nationwide is on your side. >> and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. [captioning made possible by kcet public television] captioned by the national captioning institute --www.ncicap.org--